August 13, 2009

MaximumRocknRoll: an interview with Golnar Nikpour

O.k. So this interview is waaaaay old. Actually, it was conducted in October of 2006, almost three (!) years ago. It was intended for the 6th issue of RE/fuse zine. Unfortunately, that took ages to come out (actually: the first copies should be floating around the Netherlands as we speak) so I decided to share this with you as an installment for my blog. In the three years since the interview was conducted, Golnar left MRR as a coordinator and moved back to New York. Still, I think the interview gives some interesting insights in the workings of one of the longest-running punk zines in the world. Also, a little while ago MRR's website has been completely hauled over and now features regular blog-posts and updates from the zine's volunteers. You should check it out as well as their weekly radio-show. Enjoy the read!

Does MaximumRocknRoll really need any introduction? The longest running punk zine in the world is entering its 25th year of publication and is still going strong. Founded by the late Tim Yohannan in 1977 as a radio-show, MaximumRocknRoll first saw the light as a fanzine in 1982 as the booklet accompanying the now-legendary Not So Quiet on the Western Front compilation LP. It quickly established itself as one of the most important zines in the burgeoning hardcore scene and became an invaluable resource to punks around the world in their quests to find new records and like-minded people. With a circulation of up to 10,000 copies a month, MRR is still one of the most influential zines around and until this day remains the “punk bible” to many punks, both young and old. And rightfully so; where many zines in the past have either fizzled out or given up on some of their DIY antics to go the route of more traditional publications, MRR has always held on to its belief in doing things the DIY way. Every month its news-printed black-and-white pages are filled with scene reports from all parts of the world, interviews with both new and well-established DIY bands, columns and zine-, book- and record-reviews. Currently, the zine is being run by three coordinators, of whom I interviewed one, Golnar Nikpour, when I was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area in October 2006. She has been coordinator for the zine since 2004. We talked about the state of zines in today’s scene, about the stress and responsibilities that come with running such a longstanding punk institution, Golnar’s announced departure from the magazine sometime in 2007 and her view on punk and women in the punk scene.

It seems that the number of zines is ever decreasing and conditions for zine-makers are getting harder. HeartattaCk, for example, one of the other few punk zines with a big circulation, recently ceased to exist and other zines are experiencing problems as well. How do you see MRR’s function in today’s punk-scene and zine-scene?

We were all really upset to hear about the demise of HeartattaCk. And it’s not just HaC. Slug & Lettuce is having financial problems and different zines are all kinds of facing various crises in different ways. It’s definitely a scary time for print zines and indie magazines. Prices go up and up, there’s postage, printing, etc. There’s no real way to make up for that lost money because a punk zine can’t raise its prices every six months.

But still, I believe that print media is extremely relevant in the punk scene, though its function is much different then it was ten or fifteen or twenty years ago. The factor that most people point to as having changed the relevancy of the print zine is the internet, which is undoubtedly a faster way to find out about news or about new records. I still think, however, that there are conversations that happen in zines and debates that form in print that you don’t have anywhere else.

These days, it is certainly more difficult to get news to people first. There are much more fast and reliable ways to get news than a monthly punk fanzine. So what we’re trying to do now is figure out ways to have more long-form articles and more in-depth features that feature stories you don’t necessarily get in the mainstream press along with the general news-section where you can get shorter pieces about things that are happening around the world. And we also try to focus on some of the non-musical sides of punk; on things that are about business, or ethics, or the politics of that stuff, just to make sure that those topics are something that people still think about.

I think one of the things that is really different about punk now than it was at some points in its history is that it seems like in a lot of the current scenes the idea of political awareness in punk isn’t very important and the scenes in which it is are kind of marginalized or ghettoized. There’s the kind of “anarcho-ghetto” where people don’t really care about what’s happening in other parts of the DIY punk scene. And then there are a lot of average punk rockers who don’t care about what’s happening in the anarcho-world and aren’t interested in that kind of politics. Which is fine, but it’s not fine when they’re not really thinking about the sort of ethics of putting out records or being in bands to begin with. For many, it’s become more a kind of vanity thing: they’re into a cool label or a cool band. Maximum definitely ideologically tries to go against that current and infuse punk with a more thoughtful standard and a more confrontational politics. I’m talking about not only a geo-global political awareness, but stuff that is directly relevant to the DIY punk scene, like calling people out on bullshit business, politics, etc. Maximum has always had a political agenda, which continues to this day. It’s something that’s really important to the magazine. It’s not necessarily more important than punk music, but the whole idea behind Maximum is that all these ideas are connected and you can’t really separate them. The politics of punk and the musical side of punk are both relevant to what the magazine is trying to do; you can’t have one without the other.

Do you feel that punks still care about that kind of stuff? Maximum, from the early eighties on, has always kind of been seen as a kind of leftist, communist punk stronghold. It has gotten criticism from punks for setting a standard of what punk is supposed to be and rules they’d had to abide to. But has it come to a point where these discussions are purely centered around the magazine and do you feel like they’re not really present anymore in other parts of the scene?

I hope they still are! (laughter) I do think that Maximum is a little bit of an anomaly in the current punk scene sometimes, but it probably always has been. It’s a pretty widely read zine: it gets to a lot of places and a lot of people read it, but some of the magazine’s politics aren’t things that are necessarily that popular or common in the current DIY punk scene. I do think, however, that people still care about that stuff.

There are a lot of people who put a lot of energy into DIY punk. We try to focus on supporting DIY punk in the best way that we can and also making it clear what our boundaries are and hoping that people can draw some of their own conclusions too. I do feel that people still care about that stuff because we get a lot of support and feedback from people who are still really dedicated to those ideals: a lot of people who are older and a lot of people who are just getting into punk. Those are the things that are really cool about punk: the idea that we can be creating this totally unique, weird, outsider thing in a community of people who care about some of the same things that we do, and through that tap into this wide network of like-minded people who are going to help you with your band, your label, your record, your zine, whatever. And I think that still inspires a lot of people around the world and so in that sense the politics of Maximum still really resonate strongly, because at it’s core the politics of Maximum is founded on the the DIY ethic of supporting international punk.

Tim (Yohannan – ed.) himself was an ardent communist, but a lot of people around him, even at the time, didn’t share those specific politics and a lot of people now don’t have those politics. So on that level of politics, we are all over the map. But in terms of a sort of global punk ethic I think we’re really on the same page with a lot of people around the world, which is what keeps the magazine going after all this time.

Do you still see that punk as a culture has that potential for creating change or has is become a lot more turned inward where it has become ‘punk for punk’s sake’? How does Maximum play a role into that aspect of it? Because the zine has strong politics, but it always has centered around records.

I think that no one worldview defines punk absolutely. I think one really cool thing about punk is that it incorporates all these different, seemingly contradictory things. Crass, for example, is a quintessential punk band, but then there are also bands that are just totally nihilistic and who have no political motivations at all, yet who are still quintessential punk bands. Punk can be funny like the Angry Samoans, or massively intelligent like the Minutemen, or totally stupid and ridiculous, like the Grabbies. Trying to promote one view of punk at the expense of another kind of misses the point.

Regardless, punk to me is absolutely DIY. There’s so many different things that go into a sort of punk worldview that it’s really hard (and would be pretty boring) to have one overwriting political standard, even though I think that Maximum has tried to always inject left-leaning politics into punk’s discourse. But from the beginning Maximum was also totally an obsessive music fanzine. Tim was a crazy record-collector. His collection is here to this day. There are all sorts of stories of him going to the ends of the earth for rare records. The magazine wasn’t a political journal. It was a music fanzine that had a political agenda and I think that’s kind of what it still remains to this day.

I do think, however, that today’s punk scene (in general) has sort of smaller aspirations than it once did. You read interviews with old bands and they had this almost naïve idealism about what they were doing. I just read an old interview with Social Unrest where they talk about health care in California, and changing housing policy, and that sort of thing. I understand why that sort of idealism doesn’t exist today; it would be profoundly naïve to think that punk was going to change housing policy or our national approach to war at this point. But on the other hand I do feel it’s dangerous that punk has become this sort of hobbyist thing with no larger goals. To me, punk is not a hobby. It’s something that’s supposed to be broader than that for the people who are involved who have the most access to the scene. This is what makes it so frustrating to run into homophobia or racism or sexism in the scene, even when it’s not in outright violent manifestations. It’s more people who don’t really care one way or the other. Its like “normal dudes” or whatever who, if they hadn’t somehow stumbled across punk, would just be like any regular asshole. It just makes me scratch my head and wonder, like, “OK dude, what are you doing in hardcore?’

But also: isn’t one of the flaws of this scene, that people, as long as they are in the cool bands or doing the cool label, are not going to be called out on their shit?

It’s funny because I think it’s hard to navigate a sort of middle ground. There were definitely times, in the nineties in particular, where it seemed like every tiny little fanzine was calling someone else out on something, which wasn’t very fun or productive, and it naturally created a backlash. And, that movement was very puritanical and privileged, because most of us who come to punk are fucked up or dysfunctional in one way or another. I think that there is room and I would like to challenge punks to find that space where you’re not just an uptight, two-dimensional person policing the scene, the sort of person who is not able to see the shades of grey. Especially in a scene where people come to punk because they’re messed up or dysfunctional in a lot of ways and need the scene to give them room to figure shit out. Punks aren’t perfect and it wouldn’t make sense or be very interesting if we were. But then to also not just be like, “Well I don’t give a fuck about anything that has anything to do with how people deal with each other or how bands and labels operate. All I care about is this cool band or getting this limited record.” There’s so much room between those two really polarized ways of thinking and it’s frustrating that whenever you try to have any sort of politics there are tons of people who don’t want to hear it and call it “PC-bullshit.” Well, you don’t have to open your ears to anything if that’s where you want to be, but I think a lot of people are afraid, because those are a lot of the “cool kids” now. And then the people who are talking about different stuff than just like limited pressings and stuff, but about what’s going on in their scenes aren’t quite the cool kids anymore. I don’t know. I hope there’s some room between a tedious, alienating, boring sort of Crimethinc-world and an equally tedious, alienating “colored-vinyl only” world.

Do you see a role for Maximum there? To contribute to that?

I do. I hope that Maximum continues in its tradition of being political and thoughtful, but also irreverent and funny and not totally focused on dry agenda-driven ideas. Something that is fun and interesting and exciting and radical, instead of just the kind of first-grade elementary politics you get into when you’re first thinking about this stuff. Not to be totally down on that world, because I appreciate that people care about politics on any level, but I do think that there need to be more voices that are more sophisticated then that. Who are talking about these things and are talking about them in a way that we can actually grapple with, and debate about and have some critical thinking about and not resort to either meaningless slogans or just not caring.

What responsibility comes with running one of the very few punk institutions in the world?

Well, there are the sort of day-to-day responsibilities that come with running such a big project. There’s a lot of work that has to be done basically every single day. You have to know when to stop and how to divide your time and have some boundaries, because you could theoretically work 24 hours a day and still have work to do. There’s also (and I spoke of this a minute ago) this sense in everyone here, in all the shitworkers (volunteers – ed.), of wanting to kind of live up to this high standard that Maximum set in the ‘80 for the zine itself and to also be able to make (business) decisions, that meet the standard that the magazine has always kept. And then there’s just the incredible strain of running a small business that isn’t profit-driven and that doesn’t make a lot of money. I’m sure the average reader, and myself included before I started working here, thinks that running Maximum is like easy sailing, because it’s such a big, established thing, but then because of the fact that it’s too big to operate out of somebody’s bedroom it is not all that easy to run. We live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, we have tons of rent to pay, the printing costs are enormous, and the shipping costs as well. Every month we have to make that money back and basically that’s what we do: we make the money back and then we do it again. So on a really kind of big scale it’s kind of like living hand to mouth, where you are living pay-check to pay check. A lot of the difficulty of running the magazine comes from the business aspect and the financial strain.

Being a coordinator here gives you some power in a way. Do you experience that and how do you deal with that aspect of it?

When I first started I definitely knew that that would kind of happen at some point, but I don’t think I had any real sense of what it meant to have a public voice in the punk scene. It took a little time to get used to it. There have definitely always been a handful of people who were nice to me or just disliked me for no reason other than what they think about the magazine. At first I found that really stressful and I didn’t really enjoy it. It was frustrating to have people talk to me and not actually be talking to me, but just talking to the idea of a coordinator at MaximumRocknRoll. But over time I’ve kind of been able to put that stuff in the back of my head and try to just relate to the people who come here and the shitworkers that I deal with and the labels and the rad people I’ve met all over the world. Part of it is just kind of shutting out some of the more personal criticism (or random praise) or stuff that isn’t constructive in any way. I don’t take a lot of it too personally and part of that is not worrying about someone’s random vendetta against the magazine or something.

There is something kind of awkward about —and it feels kind of silly because it’s punk— having any kind of public persona. It’s almost embarrassing in a way. People have this idea that they know you from what you’re writing, or have a certain amount of what they expect from you because they feel they’re connected to the magazine. I also think that I kind of have some boundaries about how personal the stuff that I will write about is. There’s just some things that I don’t want to write about myself in the magazine, though different columnists have different levels of what they’ll write about. But yeah, there has always been a little bit of tension for me about that stuff, because I tend to be a fairly private person.

Also related to that and to the power of the magazine: do you feel that Maximum in some way is setting the agenda for what is and what isn’t cool in the punk scene? Whenever a band gets a really good review and ends up in five top 10s of an issue, you’re going to be more inclined to buy the record without having heard a song.

It’s funny, because I think Maximum has been accused of stuff like: ‘you people only cover hyped bands’ or something. But when we’re here, it’s like: the record comes in and I don’t know anything about it and if I like it, I’ll give it a good review. It’s not like a calculated thing, like ‘Oh, I think this band is going to be the next big thing’ or ‘I’m going to make them the next big thing.’ I think the reviewers here are really honest. If a record is great and somebody just gushes over it and then everyone wants the record and then that generates more hype or whatever, I understand why there would be a backlash to that. I do think, however, that the people here are really genuine about their taste and aren’t looking to just do the next big thing. And of course, the magazine is going to reflect the coordinators’ tastes, and it’s going to change with the different coordinators, though I think that that shift in focus is totally fair. The coordinators put so much work into the magazine and all that we really get back is the actual magazine. And it’s a fanzine after all, and we’re nothing if not fanatics about punk music. So the idea is: of course I’m going to push stuff that I’m really excited about, because I’m genuinely excited. All the shitworkers come in because they care about DIY punk and they care about the music that they like and they care about the magazine, so of course we support the bands that we like, because we’re excited about them and then if that in turn generates more attention: so be it. The alternative would be a totally bland zine that didn’t have opinions and that didn’t care about anything.

And it’s also everyone’s responsibility. If they want to see a band covered all someone has to do is do an interview and send it in.

Exactly. That’s what my response has always been. Maximum is totally contributor-driven, so if you want to see something in the zine send it in!

I think a lot of people don’t really see that. They see it as this things that just comes out everyone month, made by a bunch of people here in the Bay Area and where they don’t really feel that they can contribute to that.

That’s definitely true. I had done one scene-report for the magazine before I started working here but I never thought I could contribute interviews, even though it says right there in the zine that you can. The magazine is completely contributor-driven. There are bands that we contact and say like, “we would really like an interview. I hope that you can put it together’” but even still, the people who are putting the magazine together have their hands totally full with just that, so we really rely on people interviewing bands or writing articles or doing scene-reports about cool things that are happening. And of course, living in the Bay Area, we’re not going to know about everything’s that happening all over the world. So, I think that as much as the magazine does reflect the people who work here and our particular tastes and politics, I think it also does reflect a much larger whole. That’s always been a really big part of Maximum: to try to be as international as possible and cover bands from scenes all over the world. We can always do better, but that definitely takes people’s contributions and people getting involved.

So you’ve decided that you’re going to quit doing the magazine? Do you feel you’re getting burned out by it?

I think that I’m leaving at a pretty good time. There’s part of me that wants to do this for a much longer time then I have done it now. It’s pretty rewarding and exciting and really fun on like a day-to-day basis. You get to hang out with people who are fucking rad, you work on this thing that is really cool and you feel really good about it, because it comes out every month.

For me I’m not so much burned on Maximum, it’s more that I have to think about it basically every minute of every day, and while I’m not unhappy doing that, there are other things that I don’t get to do as a result. Other things that I care about that I haven’t had any time to think about for the last few years. My interests in wanting to go back to school, to travel, to work on other projects and stuff are so different from Maximum that I just can’t do it all. If there was a way that that could work out, I would totally do it.

I definitely feel really confident about knowing more now about the things I want to focus on in punk. I guess I’m going to be somewhat less involved with punk on a day-to-day level, because I won’t be coordinating a fanzine fulltime anymore, but I feel really inspired by DIY punk by being here, and want to put a lot of energy into the things that I care about. I definitely think doing a fanzine is one of those things and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be doing one. Probably different from how I was doing it before: not way different but just have different ideas and a different focus. And I definitely always want to contribute to Maximum (I’m going to keep writing a column, and working on interviews and helping with editing the magazine), and also work to contribute to other punk institutions, like show-spaces or labels or community-spaces, or record stores or fanzines that are doing rad stuff. Try to get as involved with that in whatever community I’m in. Because I think that fostering that community is a really important part of being punk, so I definitely feel really energized to do that kind of stuff.

A theme that regularly comes back in your columns is girls in punk. Why is that issue so important to you?

Tim Yo apparently used to say how he always envisioned the person to take over as a coordinator to be a woman, because by the time you’re in position to run Maximum, you’re a little older and you’ve been around in punk for a while. If you’re a woman, you’ve probably dealt with so much more than any random punk dude. You’ve probably have had to actually think about your involvement and work harder on it. I definitely think that that’s true. Of course not to discount any of the amazing men who have been involved in punk and hardcore for years, but the hardcore scene especially is still pretty male-dominated and women still have to work very hard just to get to square one.

I think that it’s important to have really strong female voices in punk, because punk is basically the most important thing that has ever happened to my life. It speaks to me really directly and it’s always been really inspiring and really moving, but I’ve always hit walls or glass ceilings where I feel like not totally welcome in a sort of boys-club scene. Even though punk music itself has always made me feel really included, the scene itself hasn’t.

It wasn’t necessarily my main focus when I got here, but over time it’s been something that I’ve been more and more kind of obsessed with. The idea of punk women kind of taking care of each other even when the scene doesn’t really want to nurture them. Punk girls are super tuff, way tougher than a lot of their male counterparts I think. It’s not just women. I think that the punk scene, just like a lot of things, especially here in the US and in Europe, is dominated by the same kinds of voices that are dominant in mainstream society. Boys, especially white, middleclass, straight boys are told from their young age that anything is possible for them. They’re told their whole lives that their opinion is worth being voiced, that they should feel comfortable with voicing it, that it’s the most valid, the most relevant. I think that makes boys much more fearless, but not in a way that’s earned. It’s just assumed. So for women to feel that fearless, means that they really have done the work to feel that fearless. And it takes a lot of energy and a lot of fighting your own sense of self-worth.

So one of the things that I really wanted to write about is the idea that punk women and people who aren’t the dominant voices in punk, like queers or people of color, have to take care of each other and try to work towards that fearlessness. One thing I’ve said a lot was that I didn’t become punk so that I could have another set of great white fathers. But especially in hardcore and in this country almost all those early hardcore bands were all white dudes. And now we talk about that era as kind of a Golden Age. But it’s like, in that Golden Age so many of us weren’t represented, and so many of us who were there were written out of the history books. One of the things that I’ve been interested in here and want to continue to focus on even after I’m gone, is trying to tell the stories that have fallen through the cracks. You know, there are a bunch of bands I’ve gotten into recently that are from here and from other countries that were made up out of people who had recently immigrated. Or there’s a lot more queer punk stuff that people don’t necessarily know about. And a lot of those stories aren’t told because they weren’t the main voices of punk. They were kind of more fringe elements. But that’s what has kind of drawn me to punk throughout the years anyway, this idea of these total outsiders. People who actually couldn’t function in mainstream society or mainstream society rejected their values and their unique mode of thinking. And that means that I’ll try to focus on people that weren’t necessarily in bands, but even in the hardcore era there were a lot of women doing fanzines and a lot of women photographers and people setting up shows and a lot of that stuff falls through the cracks.

So I feel kind of obsessed with trying to tell those other stories, for myself and my peers but also because of young girls first getting into punk. I want young girls to be able to maintain that same spark of inspiration that we all feel when we first get into punk by feeling that their lives are reflected in the punk scene, and by having their voices be nurtured. Having it not be some lame two-dimensional girl power thing, but having it be an actually more valid and deep and complex. Stories and ideas that actually relate to more people and that hopefully they can find some value in. It’s definitely more difficult growing up as a girl and I think that’s probably what draws a lot of young women to punk, especially the alienation of not really having the tools to access what mainstream society has to offer or not really feeling like you fit into the mold/role that society has created for you. For me it’s important that punk is able to embrace different kinds of people and not be an isolating thing, a rigid, standoffish, macho thing, you know?

I think that it’s a sad fact that women aren’t encouraged to explore all of the outlets open to them, creatively or politically. So it meant a lot that there were women just saying ‘hey we’re making this music and we’re making punk rock and we don’t care about what the boys think’ and that’s really cool. And it took me a long time to get to a place where I felt anything similar to that, because you care about what the cool kids think and if all the cool kids are boys then you’re going to care what they think. I don’t know. I think that punk has gotten better about having women’s (and queer, and non-white) voices present, but I think it is because of the presence of strong women to begin with. I think a lot of punk boys are really amazing and really open to a lot of the things that you would want them to be open to, but the scene at large is just kind of this huge thing and it takes a long time for it to change. So yeah, I think that it continues to be important for there to be really strong, active female voices doing a lot of different things and express themselves also in a lot of different ways. That’s one of the things I’d like to see: tons of different punk women doing a bunch of different stuff so that at some point we could stop having this conversation.

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